Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Michael Jackson's death - Twitter-style

I'm just back from Prague where the newspapers on Friday led not on the death of Michael Jackson but on the serious floods in the south of the Czech Republic. One newspaper carried a nib about Jackson's death on the front page but otherwise there was nothing. Of course I might have missed something (my Czech isn't what it should be and newspapers there may have earlier deadlines), but the contrast between this and the media hysteria generated by the UK press was quite startling. Like Roy Greenslade, I would use the word "overkill" to describe the acres of newsprint about Jackson which greeted me on my return. I'd say the Czech press had its priorities right.

But from an online journalism research perspective, the interesting thing about coverage of Jackson's death was that it provided yet more evidence of the growing role of Twitter in breaking and passing on news. Unlike Iran or Mumbai, this was not a life or death event (except for Jackson, of course) and Twitterers were sharing links and news rather than acting as eyewitnesses. But again Twitter seized the initial news agenda from the mainstream press. Citizen journalism in action?

Yes, on one level. But as comments left on Robert Niles' blog at the Online Journalism Review suggest, tweeting is still a minority activity, tweets aren't always accurate and it's often the same voices leading the conversation. It still needs the reach of the mainstream media to bring the news to the majority (including the news that the story broke on Twitter and the site crashed).

Of course, the mainstream media may be among those tweeting most loudly. Growing numbers of journalists are using it to share information and source contacts. The jury is still out on whether Twitter is a great piece of technology or a fad but it looks as if it's becoming a virtual telephone, contact book and notebook for a significant minority. And mainstream news sites including Times Online and the Guardian have been using Twitter feeds from reporters on the spot effectively at high profile news events like the G20 demonstrations. As with blogs, journalists are moving into geek territory and appropriating the tools to change the way they do their jobs. Chuck that notebook in the bin. On second thoughts, don't. That's the difference between being a professional journalist and being a member of the public.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The gatekeeper lives

One of the themes coming out of recent research is that newsroom practices are not changing as dramatically as some commentators suggest. Yes, journalists are blogging and shooting video and interacting with their readers, who are holding them to account in a way that some journalists find difficult and disconcerting. Yes, the idea that journalists should be able to stick to writing copy for a newspaper is looking increasingly untenable, especially in today's economic climate.

But underneath this flurry of multimedia innovation, old habits die hard. In a recent article in Journalism Studies, Phil Macgregor (2007) looks at the way journalists adjust their work to take account of server data showing how many readers are reading each story, when they're reading it and where the readers are from. Never before have writers had some much information about what readers are actually interested in. This is a huge change from the situation outlined by academics like Schlesinger (1987) and Gans (1980), who found that journalists only had the vaguest idea of who their readers/audiences were.

Now there is no such excuse and Macgregor's interviews with senior journalists reveal that they take server data seriously. But not so seriously that they take down or rewrite pieces that data show are generating little reader interest. There is still, rightly in my view, an in-built resistance to giving way too completely to the audience. Even in a multi-media newsroom, with readers flooding message boards and comment boxes and every story's interest quantifiable by its clicks, journalists consider it's up to them to decide what's news.

As a CNN editor tells Macgregor: "..if I just wanted to chase what people on the internet wanted to click on, I would do stories about soft porn and football and nothing else. We are a news site so we have to be treated as news and we have to cover stories which do not always have mass appeal."

Another piece of research by Alfred Hermida and Neil Thurman (2008) in Journalism Practice, aptly entitled A Clash of Cultures, finds that managers and editors in mainstream UK newsrooms like Times Online and the Telegraph encouraged the growth of user generated content (UGC) like blogs, message boards and comments, partly through fear of being left behind if they didn't. So much for far-sighted innovation.

Editors are also frightened that their "brand" could be tarnished if they allow readers to say what they like, unmoderated (and of course, they could be sued if they carry libellous content). The result? Organisations which want UGC on their sites spend a fortune on moderation, getting their journalists to filter content for its suitability and interest and vet blog comments before they're published.

The journalistic gatekeeper is still alive and well, even in the age of interactivity.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Man on wire

Remember the documentary Man on Wire, in which French tightrope walker Philippe Petit scales one of the twin towers, stretches a rope between the two towers and walks from one to another? According to broadcaster Jon Snow, this is what today's journalistic landscape is like.

He told the Association of Journalism Educators: "We've just got to the top of the first tower, we're blogging and everything like mad and having a great time but where do we go from here?"

Good question. No-one knows. Snow's argument is that we'll only get to the other tower when we discover how to make online journalism pay (or how to "monetise" in the horrible jargon). But meanwhile, we're encountering journalism which is "an infinitely more intricate and democratic process than when we started - and it's going to change the world." Snow's enthusiasm for new media- " I blog three or four times a day and twitter endlessly" - is exciting,, although it contradicts one of my PhD hypotheses that older journalists are more likely to scorn new media.

Snow's talk was another reminder that it's not going to be easy doing a PhD in an area where the sands are shifting so constantly. How do you avoid producing results which are at best confirming what everyone has known for ages because the process of research and getting published takes so long?

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Trends in newsrooms

What does it feel like to be a journalist on the receiving end of huge changes to your working life because your editors have decided they're going to "integrate" your newsroom? Instead of writing just for a newspaper or just for the web, you're going to have to do both. And you're not only writing but shooting and editing video packages and learning to think "visually", as a storyteller rather than a "mere journalist" (whatever this means).

Thousands of journalists are going through this very process, described in fascinating detail in the World Editors' Forum's Trends in Newsrooms report. (I've just read the 2008 report but there's a 2009 report out as well which is on my reading list). Some journalists are finding the move to integration exciting, especially new journalists like my students, who don't know what a traditional print-only newsroom was like. Others, mid-career people like my journalism colleagues, often find the change terrifying.

But anyone looking for a perspective from the newsroom floor, as I am, won't find much of this in this report. It's written for management and the sub-text is: What are other papers doing to drum up readers and try and get noticed as print journalism implodes and circulations plummet? How are other managers and editors handling the move to integration and especially how are they getting their journalists onside?

There's lots of sound advice about communicating with your staff and the big risk of imposing change too rapidly (some fingers point at the Telegraph at this point). There's a sensible discussion about the importance of rethinking layout of newsrooms. As a journalist on Times Online when we were in a completely different building to the paper, I can definitely vouch for the difficulty of operating an integrated news operation from separate buildings. There's recognition that management needs to spend money on training rather than just expecting print reporters to go out with a video camera.

All good ideas. But how much of a gap is there between the ideal and the reality?

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

No anonymity for bloggers

A short break from reading the World Editors' Forum's Trends in Newsrooms report (of which more anon) to consider a hot question. Should you be allowed to remain anonymous when you're making critical remarks about your employer and your professional life on your blog? The answer is no, says Mr Justice Eady. In a landmark case, which will have implications for bloggers everywhere, the judge refused to grant an injunction protecting the anonymity of the author of the Night Jack blog, ruling that the Times could reveal the name of author Detective Constable Richard Horton.

This is a contentious decision. The only way we know what is going on in tax-payer funded services like the police is sometimes via employees brave enough to speak out under the cloak of anonymity (because revealing their identity and criticising openly could mean the sack). It's not quite clear to me why the Times thought it was important to reveal Horton's name - is this not a bit close to revealing your sources (albeit an indirect source)? Will this ruling mean a further reduction in the already shaky trust many people have in journalists?

But even if you write under a pseudonym, as many bloggers do, blogging is a public act. As soon as you go online, you're trackable. If your blog doesn't give you away, your Facebook will. This is the power of the internet. And this ruling shows that the courts aren't going to protect you if you're outed.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

News from the Daily Show

Why did the New York Times let this man in? You almost have to feel sorry for the editors trying to justify having just one daily deadline. The writing just may be on the wall......

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
End Times
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorNewt Gingrich Unedited Interview

Some more context..

American sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s were hot on empirical studies about what actually went on in newsrooms. In my mind the newsrooms they're writing about look a bit like this....

Out with the old

Sometimes you only realise how much things have changed in journalism when you read a book published nearly 10 years ago. This morning, I was dipping into (sorry, reading intelligently as part of my PhD research) John Pavlik's Journalism and New Media, published in 2001. A good read, widely quoted, with plentiful insights into how new technologies are changing the way journalists work. As the subject of my PhD is the way convergence are changing the way journalists work in mainstream UK national broadsheet newsrooms, I thought it a good idea to revisit this book, on many of our student reading lists. But I soon realised that things had moved on a bit. On the subject of search engines, Pavlik mentions such venerable players as Alta Vista, Lycos and Yahoo before adding: "A related search technology is called Google." In all my time at Times Online, the Evening Standard and teaching journalism (admittedly only four years of my working life), I can't recall any of my colleagues using anything except Google. And not only Google the search engine but Google Mail, Google Reader, Google Scholar...

Is it a waste of time reading books and papers which focus on out-of-date technology and working practices? I don't think it is. Because I've come to my subject as a practictioner rather than an academic, I'm having to do quite a lot of contextual reading about theories of production and consumption of news as well as catching up on more recent work about how traditional newsroom organisations and hierarchies are being challenged by the convergence of print and online media. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The development of technology is part of this context and part of the debate about how journalists have to adapt to new technology.

Of course, reading Pavlik's book was yet another reminder that in six years' time everything will have changed again. The very idea of a blog will probably be laughable. But only four years ago, I was commissioned to write a blog for Times Online. My response was: "What's a blog?" and my editor said: "I'm not quite sure...." There's some context...


Up at the University of Sheffield, where I'm doing my PhD. It's strange being a student again after several years of teaching in a university. I have to keep reminding myself not to get stroppy if people are talking in the library. But now I've discovered where the silent areas are (needless to say on the top floors, so too far for the chatterers to come), I'm getting a lot done. It's easier to work if other people are working around you. And you don't keep getting "courtesy calls" from banks or people wanting to come in and read the meter like I do working from home.

Tomorrow is my second monthly meeting with my supervisor, in which she wants me to give her a "braindump". I'm sure she wouldn't ask for this if she knew what the interior of my brain really feels like. I may be doing a PhD but the more I read, the more I realise I don't know. Apart from the occasional moment when I read something and think: "That wasn't written by anyone who's ever worked in a newsroom."

The start of it all

2015. 30 April 2015, to be precise. This is the date when I'm scheduled to finish my PhD. Six years away. People are already making faces of sympathy and so far I've only done two weeks.
Of course if you're an academic, you're happy to read all day, given the chance. Even if the sort of reading you're doing includes sentences like this: "....they [design changes] emerge from a dynamic media environment that is shaped by technological, social and cultural forces".... Or this: "Borrowing from ethnomethodological, phenomenological and symbolic interactionist perspectives, several studies within the last 10 years have taken a fresh look at news...."
I read both these today and I'm not going to argue - yet, but give me time. I need to get back into an academic mindset after 23 years in journalism and four as a journalism lecturer focusing on teaching students to pass their NCTJ newswriting exam.

Why do a PhD? Journalism is one of the few subjects which you can teach at university level without needing a doctorate. The students in my experience are much more interested in being taught by "real" journalists who have good contacts and industry knowledge than they are in lecturers with Dr in front of their name. I have a proper, permanent job in a university I like, working with colleagues who are also practitioners. My job doesn't depend on getting a PhD (unless my employer knows something I don't).

But even in journalism, and even in vocationally oriented universities like my own, there is growing pressure to carry out academic research. This is where the money comes from, as long as you're good at filling in endless forms and winkling out sometimes pathetically small sums of money from various grant-awarding bodies. The alternative is to take more students, which the government has realised it can't afford any more. Bizarre way of funding a university system....
Actually, my decision to do a PhD has nothing to do with pressure from management. I'm doing it because I want to (and my kind employer has given me a four month sabbatical in which to start). Saying you're doing a PhD in journalism gets a few raised eyebrows. Not exactly an academic subject.....? Maybe not traditionally but there is a growing body of critical literature, case studies and industry analysis and debate. To which I shall be adding with my research into the way UK journalists work in converged newsrooms. And letting my inner academic rip.